By Roger McKinney
JOPLIN, Mo. — Without fanfare, an old business in Southeast Kansas has resurfaced.
Phoenix Mining Co. began mining coal last year from its surface mine at Garland, in Bourbon County between Arcadia and Fort Scott. It removes about 20,000 tons of coal each month, selling it to Empire District Electric Co.
“I think there’s a great potential for more coal mining,” said Clay Hartley, an official with Phoenix Mining, which employs 25 people at its Kansas site. “Westar is looking at the reserves in Kansas. That could be 800,000 tons of coal a year.”
Westar Energy Inc., based in Topeka, has plans to build an 800-megawatt, coal-fired plant by 2013. Officials in Crawford and Bourbon counties are lobbying the utility to build the plant in their counties. Westar has hired a company to conduct a site-selection study.
State Sen. Jim Barone, D-Frontenac, is hoping that a coal-powered electric generating plant can fire up demand.
“A power plant would jump-start it,” Barone said. “Until we get some reason to get it going and jump-start it, it is very difficult to get it revived.”
Southeast Kansas isn’t the only coal-mining region wondering about a revival. Closed coal mines are being reopened and new ones are opening around the country, said Phil Smith, communications director for the United Mine Workers of America. He said shaft and surface mines in West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are in full operation.
He said the high price of coal is making it worthwhile for companies to dig it out of the ground again.
Last month, the average spot price for Powder River Basin coal from Wyoming declined from its all-time high of $16.89 to $16.22 per short ton. Last year at this time, coal from the same region was selling for around $6 to $7 per ton, according to the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy.
“Coal buyers and sellers have expected prices to remain elevated because coal supplies and coal consumer inventories are tight at the same time as coal demand is increasing, and neither the tight coal supplies and inventories nor the increasing demand will resolve quickly,” the administration noted in a report on Nov. 10.
Experts say one drawback to Kansas coal is its high sulfur content, which results in more air pollution when it is burned than coal from the Powder River Basin, for example. But Barone and others say the technology exists to wash the sulfur out of the coal.
“Technology has improved so much that you can burn a high-sulfur coal without polluting the air,” Smith said.
State Rep. Doug Gatewood, D-Columbus, also said he thinks there is potential to revive the coal industry in Southeast Kansas.
“I understand that the technology has improved so that this coal could be a viable source,” Gatewood said. “We know it burns with more energy. It’s just a question of getting it clean enough.”
Gatewood said coal can be removed from the ground without destroying the landscape.
Hartley, with Phoenix Mining, said that as more power plants retrofit to clean the coal, there will be more demand for Kansas coal. Currently, Empire District Electric Co. in Joplin, Mo., is the Vinita, Okla., company’s only customer.
Amy Bass, Empire spokeswoman, said the utility uses between 150,000 and 200,000 tons of local coal per year, mixing it with around 1 million tons of cleaner-burning Western coal. She said the local coal is used at power plants in Riverton and in Asbury, Mo.
She said Phoenix Mining provides all of the local coal for the company. She said Empire has sulfur air credits that allow it to use a certain amount of high-sulfur coal.
Hartley said that while the price of coal has increased, it is still cheap relative to the price of natural gas. He said price and demand will determine the future of the Kansas coal industry.
“It’s all relative to the price of coal whether you can mine it economically or not,” he said. “It’s all price-driven. As the price of coal goes up, we’ll mine more coal.”
Nobody is claiming that coal mining can be the industry it once was in Southeast Kansas, when Carmen Boccia, of Pittsburg, worked there. He started in the coal-mining business in 1951, when he was 17. He retired in 1990 when the last of the area’s surface mines were shutting down.
Boccia worked as an electrician on Big Brutus, a giant coal shovel, from 1963 to 1974. He is now on the board of the Big Brutus museum. He said he enjoyed his time working in the coal industry, though weather conditions weren’t always desirable.
“It was a good-paying job,” said Boccia, 72. “Probably anybody who worked in it would tell you it’s fascinating work. I never got bored.”
Boccia said he would like to see some coal mining restart in the area.
“I think they have the technology now to remove the sulfur,” he said.
Pittsburg & Midway Coal Mining Co., of Denver, Colo., owned Big Brutus when it was operating. The company closed its last two mines in Southeast Kansas in 1989. Company spokesman Robert Johnson said the company has no plan to resume operations there.
Johnson said the coal industry is experiencing a comeback in many places, but P&M; has closed two mines.
“The demand for coal is up, and several companies have increased production,” he said.
Hartley said coal gasification represents another possible future for Kansas coal.
“Coal gasification plants can burn high-sulfur coal and have no emissions,” he said.
Gasification uses coal removed from the ground and breaks it down into its chemical components. When the carbon molecules break apart, chemical reactions produce hydrogen and other gases that can be used to power turbines. Sulfur in the coal can be captured for commercial sale.
“It’s definitely a possible future market,” said Smith, with the United Mine Workers. “There’s a lot of research going into that and a lot of first-generation plants. States are vying for them. It is part of the new technology.”
Roger McKinney writes for The Joplin (Mo.) Globe.